Known for his studies and research at the University of Sâo Paulo in Brazil and the Institute of Ethnology in Paris, Claude Lévi-Strauss was formerly Deputy Director of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. He was the director of research in the religious science section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and Secretary-General of International Council of Social Sciences in Paris.
Today’s crisis in anthropology
At the time when African countries were gaining their independence, it seemed anthropology was about to fall victim to a dual conspiracy, fostered by the people hostile to it and those becoming extinct. What is the role of antropology in the modern world? Claude Lévi-Strauss replies in the November 1961 Courier.
Claude Lévi-Strauss replies
The important place social anthropology holds in the contemporary thinking may seem paradoxical to many people. It is a science very much in vogue: witness not only the fashion for films and books about travel, but also the interest of the educated public in books on anthropology.
Towards the end of the 19th century people were apt to look to the biologist in their quest for a philosophy of man and the world, and then later to the sociologist, the historian, and even the philosopher.
But for the past several years, anthropology has come to play the same role, and today it too is expected to provide us with deep reflections on our world and a philosophy of life and hope.
It is in the United States that this approach to anthropology seems to have begun. As a young nation intent on creating a humanism of its own, America broke with traditional European thin-king. It saw no reason why the civilizations of Greece and Rome should be admired to the exclusion of all others merely because in the Old World of the Renaissance, when mankind came to be considered the most proper and necessary study of man, these were the only two civilizations sufficiently known.
Since the 19th century and especially the 20th, practically every human society on our planet has become accessible to study. Why then limit our interests? And indeed, when we contemplate humanity in its entirety we cannot fail to recognize the fact that for 99/100ths of mankind’s existence, and over most of the inhabited globe, there have been no customs, no beliefs, and no institutions which do not fall within the province of anthropological study.
This was strikingly emphasised during the last war with the struggle waged on a worldwide scale. Even the most obscure and remote corners of our planet were suddenly catapulted into our lives and consciousness and took on three-dimensional reality. These were the lands where the last “savage” peoples on earth had sought safety in isolation – the far north of America, New Guinea, the hinterlands of south-east Asia, and certain islands in the Indonesian archipelago.
Since the war, many names, once charged with mystery and romance, have remained on our maps but now they designate landing spots for long-distance jet liners. Under the impact of aviation and with increase in world population, our planet has shrunk in size, and improved communications and travel facilities permit us no longer to close our eyes or remain indifferent to other peoples.
Today there is no fraction of the human race, no matter how remote and retarded it may still appear, which is not directly or indirectly in contact with others, and whose feelings, ambitions, desires and fears do not affect the security and prosperity and the very existence of those to whom material progress may once have given a feeling of ascendancy.
Even if we wanted to, we could no longer ignore or shrug off with indifference, say, the last head-hunters of New Guinea, for the simple reason that they are interested in us. And surprising though it may be, the result of our contacts with them means that both they and we are now part of the same world, and it will not be long before we are all part of the same civilization.
For even societies with the most widely divergent patterns of thought and whose customs and mores took thousands of years to evolve along isolated paths, impregnate one another once contact is established. This occurs in many, devious ways; sometimes we are clearly aware of them, often we are not.
As they spread throughout the world, the civilizations which (rightly or wrongly) felt that they had reached the height of development, such as Christianity, Islamism, Buddhism, and on a different level the technological civilization that unites them, become tinged with the “primitive” way of life, “primitive” thin-king and “primitive” behaviour which have always been the subject of anthropological research. Without our realizing it, the “primitive” ways are transforming these civilizations from within.
For the so-called primitive or archaic peoples do not simply vanish into a vacuum. They dissolve and are incorporated with a greater or lesser speed into the civilization surrounding them. At the same time, the latter acquires a universal character.
Anthropology: a science without an object?
Thus, far from diminishing in importance, primitive peoples concern us more with each passing day. To take only one example, the great civilization the West is justly proud of, and which has spread its roots across the inhabited globe, is everywhere emerging as a “hybrid”. Many foreign elements, both spiritual and material, are being absorbed into its stream.
As a result, the problems of anthropology have ceased to be a matter for specialists, limited to scholars and explorers; they have become the direct and immediate concern of every one of us.
Where then, lies the paradox? In reality, there are two –insofar as anthropology is chiefly concerned with the study of “primitive” peoples. At the moment when the public has come to recognize its true value, we may well ask whether it has not reached the point where it has nothing more left to study.
For the very transformations which are spurring a growing theoretical interest in “primitives” are in fact bringing about their extinction. This is not really a new phenomenon. As early as 1908, when he inaugurated the chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Liverpool, Sir James Frazer (author of the monumental Golden Bough) dramatically called the attention of governments and scholars to this very problem. Yet we can hardly com-pare the situation half a century ago with the large-scale extinction of “primitive” peoples which we have witnessed since then.
Let me cite a few examples. At the beginning of white settlement in Australia, the aborigines numbered 250,000 individuals. Today no more than 40,000 are left.
Official reports describe them herded in reserves or clustered near mining centres where in the place of their traditional wild food gathering parties they are reduced to sneak scavenging in rubbish heaps outside the mining shacks. Other aborigines, who had retreated deep into the forbidden desert, have been uprooted by the installation of atomic explosion bases or rocket launching sites.
Protected by its exceptionally hostile environment, New Guinea with its several million tribesmen may well be the last great sanctuary of primitive society on earth.
But here too, civilization is making such rapid inroads that the 600,000 inhabitants of the central mountains who were totally unknown as mere twenty years ago, are now providing labour contingents for the building of roads. And it is no rarity today to see road signs and milestones parachuted into the unexplored jungle!
But with civilization have come strange diseases, against which “primitives” have no natural immunization and which have wrought deadly havoc in their ranks. They are succumbing rapidly to tuberculosis, malaria, trachoma, leprosy, dysentery, gonorrhoea, syphilis and the mysterious disease known as Kuru. The result of primitive man’s contact with civilization, though not actually introduced by it, Kuru is a genetic deterioration which inevitably ends in death and for which no treatment or remedy is known.
In Brazil, 100 tribes became extinct between 1900 and 1950. The Kaingang, from the state of Sao Paulo numbering 1,200 in 1912, were no more than 200 in 1916, and today have dwindled to 80.
The Munduruku were 20,000 in 1925 – in 1950, they numbered 1,200. Of the 10,000 Nanmbikwara in 1900, I could trace only a thousand in 1940. The Kayapo of the river Araguaya were 2,500 in 1902 and 10 in 1950. The Timbira 1,000 in 1900 and 40 in 1950.
How can this rapid decimation be explained? Foremost, by the introduction of Western diseases against which the Indian’s body had no defence. The tragic fate of the Urubu, an Indian tribe from north-eastern Brazil, is typical of many others. In 1950, only a few years after they were discovered, they contracted the measles. Within a few days, out of the population of 750 there were 160 deaths. An eyewitness has left this stark description:
“We found the first village abandoned. All the inhabitants had fled, convinced that if they ran far away they would escape the sickness, which they believed was a spirit attacking the village.
We discovered them in the forest, halted in their flight. Exhausting and shivering with fever in the rain, nearly all of them had fallen victim to the disease. Intestinal and pulmonary complications had so weakened them that they no longer had strength to seek food.
Even water was lacking, and they were dying as much from hunger and thirst as from the disease. The children were crawling about on the forest floor trying to keep the fires alight in the rain and hoping to keep warm. The men lay burning and paralyzed by fever; the women indifferently thrust away their babes seeking their breast.”
Indigenous superseded by indigent
In 1954, on the Guapore at the border of Brazil and Bolivia, a mission was established and four different tribes were incited to form a single group. For several months, there were 400 people there, all of whom were exterminated by measles shortly thereafter...
But in addition to infectious diseases, vitamin and other nutritional deficiencies are also an important problem. Motor-vascular disorders, eye lesions and dental decay, unknown to primitive man when he lived according to his ancient ways, make their appearance when he is confined to villages and must eat food which does not come from his native forest. Then, even the old and tried traditional remedies, such as charcoal dressings for severe burns, prove useless. And simple diseases to which tribesmen have long been accustomed, become extraordinary virulent.
The decimation of the Indians is due to other, less direct causes, such as the collapse of the social structure or pattern of living. The Kaingang of Sao Paulo already mentioned, lived by a series of strict social rules with which every anthropologist is acquainted. The inhabitants of each village were divided into two groups on the principle that the men from the first group could marry only women from the second group and vice-versa.
When their population diminished, the foundations permitting their survival collapsed. Under the rigid system of the Kaingang, it was no longer possible for every man to find a wife and many had no choice but celi-bacy unless they resigned them-selves to mating within their own group – which to them was incest, and even then, their marriage had to be childless. In such cases, a whole population can disappear within a few years. [These observations on the disappearance of the Indians of Brazil are drawn chiefly from a study by the noted Brazilian anthropologist, Dr Darcy Ribeiro, entitled “Convivio et Contaminaçao” published in “Sociologica”, Vol. XVIII, No. 1 Sao Paulo, 1956].
Bearing this in mind, need we be surprised that it is more difficult not only to study the so-called primitive peoples but even to define them satisfactorily. In recent years, a serious attempt has been made to revise existing thinking regarding protective legislation in the countries facing this problem.
Neither language nor culture nor the conviction of belonging to a group, are valid as criteria for a definition. As enquiries of the International Labour Organization have emphasized, the notion of indigenous people is being superseded by the concept of indigence. [ILO, The Aboriginal populations. Geneva, 1953].
Peoples who refuse to be the object of study
But this is only half of the picture. There are other parts of the world where tens and hundreds of millions of people live, who were traditionally the subject of anthropology. These populations are increasing rapidly in number in Central America, the Andes, southeast Asia and Africa. But here too, anthropology faces a crisis. Not because the populations are dying out but because of the nature of the people involved.
These peoples are changing and their civilizations are gradually becoming westernized Anthropology, however, has never yet included the West within its competence or province. Furthermore, and even more important, there is a growing opposition in these regions to anthropological enquiries. Instances have occurred where regional museums of “Anthropology” have been forced to change their names and can only continue disguised as “Museums of Popular Art and Tradition”.
In the young states, which have recently obtained independence, economists, psychologists and sociologists are warmly welcomed by universities. The same can hardly be said of anthropologists.
Thus, it would almost seem that anthropology is on the point of falling victim to a dual conspiracy. On the one hand are the peoples who have ceased physically to lend themselves to study but are simply vanishing from the face of the earth. On the other are those who, far from dead, are living a great population “explosion”, yet are categorically hostile to anthropology for psychological and ethical reasons.
There is no problem about how to meet the first of these crises. Research must be speeded up and we must take advantage of the few years that remain to gather all the information we can on these vanishing islands of humanity. Such information is vital for, unlike the natural sciences, the sciences of man cannot originate their own experimentation.
Every type of society, of belief or institution, every way of life, constitutes a ready-made experiment for which preparation has taken thousands of years and as such is irreplaceable. When a community disappears, a door closes forever, locking away knowledge, which is unique.
That is why the anthropologist believes that it is essential, before these societies are lost and their social customs destroyed, to create sharper observation techniques, rather like the astronomer who has brought electronic amplifiers into play to capture the weakening signals of light from distant stars racing away from us.
The second crisis in anthropology is much less serious in the absolute since there is no threat of extinction to the civilizations concerned. But it is much more difficult to deal with it out of hand. I wonder whether it would help matters if we tried to dispel the distrust of the people who were formerly the anthropologist’s field work by proposing that our research should henceforth no longer be “one way only”. Might not anthropology find its place again if, in exchange for our continued freedom to investigate, we invited African or Melanesian anthropologists to come and study us in the same way that up to now only we have studied them?
Such an exchange would be very desirable for it would enrich the science of anthropology by widening its horizons, and set us on the road to further progress. But let us have no illusions this would not resolve the problem, for it does not take into consideration the deep motives underlying the former colonised peoples negative attitude to anthropology. They are afraid that under the cloak of an anthropological interpretation of history what they consider to be intolerable inequality will be justified as the desirable diversity of mankind.
If I may be permitted a formula which, coming from an anthropologist, can have no derogatory connotation even as pure scientific observation, I would say that Westerners will never (except in make believe) be able to act the role of “savages” opposite those whom they once dominated. For when we Westerners cast them in this role, they existed for us only as objects –whether for scientific study or political and economic domination. Whereas we, who in their eyes are responsible for their past fate, now appear to them inevitably as directing forces and therefore it is much harder or them to look at us with an attitude of detached appraisal.
By a curious paradox, it was undoubtedly a feeling of sympathy that prompted many anthropologists to adopt the idea of pluralism (this asserts the diversity of human cultures and concomitantly denies that certain civilizations can be classified as “superior” and others as “inferior”)
Science “from without”, anthropology becoming science “from within”
If therefore, anthropology is to survive in the modern world, there can be no disguising that it must be at the price of much deeper change than a mere enlarging of the circle (very restricted it is true up to now) by the rather childish formula of offering to lend our toys to the newcomers provided they let us go on playing with theirs.
Anthropology must transform its very nature and must admit that logically and morally, it is almost impossible to continue to view societies as scientific objects, which the scientists may even wish to preserve, but which are now collective subjects and claim the right to change as they please.
The modification of anthropology’s subject matter also implies modifications in its aims and methods. And these fortunately appear quite feasible for our branch of science has never defined its purposes in the absolute but rather as a relationship between the observer and his subject. And it has always agreed to change whenever this relationship has been modified.
Doubtless, the property of anthropology has always been to investigate on the spot of “from within”. But only because it was impossible to investigate at a distance or “from without”. In the field of the social sciences, the great revolution of our times is that whole civilizations have become conscious of their existence, and having acquired the necessary means to do so through literacy, have embarked on the study of their own past and traditions and every unique aspect of their culture which has survived to the present day.
Thus, if Africa, for instance, is escaping from anthropology, it will not so easily escape from science. In place of the anthropologist – that is the outside analyst, working from the outside – study of the continent will be in the hands of African scientists, or foreigners who will use the same methods as their African colleagues.
They will no longer be anthropologists but linguists, philologists, historians of facts and ideas. Anthropology will gladly accept this transition to richer, more subtle methods than its own, confident that it has fulfilled its mission by keeping alive so much of the great riches of humanity on behalf of scientific knowledge, so long as it was the only branch of science able to do so.
Diversity, anthropology’s reason for being
As to the future of anthropology itself, it seems to lie now at the far extreme and the near extreme of its traditional positions. At the far extreme, in the geographical sense first, since we must go further and further afield to reach the last of the so-called primitive populations, and they are getting fewer and fewer; but in the far extreme in its logical meaning too, since we are now interested in the essentials.
On the near extreme, in the sense that the collapse of the material foundations of the last primitive civilizations has made their intimate experiences one of our last fields of investigation, in place of the weapons, tools and household objects which have disappeared. But also because as Western civilization becomes more complex with each passing day and spreads across the whole of the earth, it is already beginning to show signs of the sharp differences which anthropology has made it its business to study but which it could formerly do only by comparing dissimilar and widely separated cultures.
Here no doubt, lies the permanent function of anthropology. For if there exists, as anthropologists have always affirmed, a certain “optimum diversity” which they see as a permanent condition of human development, then we may be sure that divergences between societies and groups within societies will disappear only to spring up in other forms.
Who knows if the conflict between the old and new generations, which so many countries are now experiencing, may not be the ransom that must be paid for the growing homogenization of our social and material culture? Such phenomena seem to me pathological but anthropology has always been characterized by its ability to explain and justify forms of human behaviour which men found strange and could not understand.
In this way, anthropology at every phase has helped to enlarge the currently held and always too constricting view of humanity. To picture the disappearance of anthropology, one would have to conjure up a civilization where all men – no matter what corner of the globe they inhabited, and whatever their way of life, their education, their professional activities, their ages, beliefs, sympathies and aversions – were, to the very roots of their consciousness, totally intelligible to all other men.
Whether one deplores it, approves it, or merely states it as a fact, technical progress and the development of communications hardly seem to be leading us to this end. And as long as the ways of thinking or of acting of some men perplex other men, there will be scope for meditation on these differences; and this, in a constantly renewing form, will be the abiding province of anthropology.